At my university job, I’m constantly working with students, moving from table to table to help them brainstorm ideas, organize their essays, and wrap things up with perfect citation style. For a side job, I couldn’t ask for anything better. I get to learn about a variety of topics, and because I’m only a consultant—not a professor—I’m in a position to give one-on-one help without having to assign grades. Indeed, the one-on-one aspect of the job is a huge part of what makes it suitable for me. As an introvert, I feel like a natural when it comes to facilitating meaningful conversation with another person (as opposed to a large group—sorry, can’t help you there!). Most days, it’s just the right amount of socializing for me.
But not today. Today I just wanted to hole up in a sound-proof room and hear and see no one. Right on schedule, my on-coming period had launched me into a week of physical exhaustion, mental fogginess, and a shabby tolerance for social interaction. I’ve gotten pretty used to muddling through and not letting my cyclical antisocial (inner) temperament become obvious to the innocent student who comes through the door with questions about his annotated bibliography.
But I wondered—what causes this symptom, and is it common? I often hear that women may feel cranky, weepy, or overwhelmed during their bouts of PMS, but do other ladies and menstruating individuals ever feel antisocial during this time?
As it turns out, I’m not alone in this symptom. Feeling antisocial during the week prior to menstruation may not be as widely experienced by your average PMS sufferer, as, say, bloating, but it’s a common symptom for the 3-6% of the menstruating population who experience premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a severe manifestation of PMS. Washington Post writer Anne Miller laments, “I’m usually outgoing, but PMDD makes me drastically antisocial with a side of severe cravings. I’ll avoid walking the dog in the evening so that I don’t run into neighbors.” Sounds good to me. People avoidance is the name of the game during this segment of my cycle.
Antisocial behavior is also intricately tied to other manifestations the hormonal ebb and flow. We need look no further than our friend (and sometime frenemy) estrogen. As our levels of estrogen drop shortly before the start of our cycle, we may feel anxious (anxiety certainly seems like a “parent” of antisocial behavior, among other PMS symptoms like increased feelings of stress and general moodiness). According to Natural Medicine Clinic, estrogen levels are directly tied to whether or not we feel good: “Estrogen […] increases lighthearted opioid and feel-good endorphin activity; feelings we’re sure to miss when estrogen levels change. Funnily enough chocolate also boosts opioids and endorphins. One of the many reasons we reach for a chocolate fix at that time of the month.” Ah, so that explains the whole chocolate thing.
Our levels of estrogen also impact our levels of serotonin, an important mood regulator: generally speaking, the lower the level of estrogen, the lower the level of serotonin. Surprise, surprise, PMS sufferers tend to experience dips in their levels of serotonin. With lower concentrations of serotonin in the blood, one is likely to be at a greater risk for symptoms of depression. But more estrogen isn’t necessarily the answer. In some cases, the body has difficulty detoxing excess estrogen, and too much estrogen can be a culprit of anxiety.
And then there’s another hormone—prolactin. Responsible for stimulating breast growth and lactation, prolactin also places a role in how we feel during/before that time of the month: sore breasts and water retention (bloating) may be a sign of imbalanced prolactin. In addition to these physical symptoms, imbalanced levels of prolactin may prompt the sufferer to feel unsafe and insecure.
The best and most effective solutions, as you may imagine, are gentle lifestyle changes. Prioritizing a plant-filled, fiber-rich diet can help the body process hormones and maintain a healthy hormonal balance. Getting regular aerobic exercise, following a healthy sleep schedule, and practicing stress management may also help improve hormonal regularity.
Even if you’re practicing the best lifestyle possible, however, there’s nothing to guarantee that PMS and feeling antisocial won’t strike again. For a more immediate solution, schedule a time (even if it’s just ½ an hour) during the day when you can be alone and reduce outside stimulation. When I’m feeling socially overwhelmed at work, I’ll sometimes step outside for a few minutes of fresh air. Although this may sound counterintuitive, you can also try talking to another woman about feeling antisocial. Sure, you’re engaging in a social activity, but chances are that you’ll be able to find some common ground—and when you make a connection with someone, you’re likely to experience a boost in some combination of feel-good hormones and neurochemicals. In other words, fight hormones with hormones!
Check out our tips for having a positive monthly cycle:
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Photo: Maga Soto via Flickr